By Ron Scalzo
S uperior horror films provide an unforgettable moment or three that give the viewer a jolt – it could be makeup, it could be music, it could be a crazy character that elevates the tension. But the best horror films ratchet up the tension slowly. They have a creepy vibe from the get-go, and that vibe never lets up, instead it simmers to a boil. The Exorcist is one of these films; Halloween, The Thing and Rosemary’s Baby also come to mind. But the movie that creeped me out the most as a kid from beginning to end was The Shining.
Anyone who has seen The Shining knows why it’s an iconic horror movie – the blood spurting elevator, the twin dead girls, the decomposing woman in Room 237, the creepy kid who talks to his finger, Redrum, Come and Play with Us Danny. People remember Jack Nicholson at his most over-the-top as Jack Torrance, a struggling writer slowly descending into madness who becomes a threat to his gifted son and mousy wife – an axe-wielding Pop who ultimately becomes a Popsicle.
The Shining was one of those movies that always seemed to be on TV year-round. Once again it was local station WPIX (or in New York, “Channel 11”) that transfixed me, the trailer’s voiceover promoting “A King-size nightmare from the Master of Horror” as Jack starts chopping down the bathroom door, preparing to utter one of cinema’s most famous ad-libs. WPIX was notorious for airing Stephen King fare in the early ’80s – Cat’s Eye and Firestarter were always riding the Movie of the Week carousel.
The Shining has its detractors, not least of all King, who probably has reason to gripe. Infamously, the film is not exactly faithful to King’s novel, and is an entity of its own thanks to the vision of director Stanley Kubrick. Although a huge fan of King’s work as a kid, it was the movie that crossed my path long before I got my hands on that particular book, as I opted for the likes of Cujo, Carrie, and It instead. Why I was reading Cujo at 8 years old is another story…
My fear of The Shining wasn’t just about one particular scene; it was about the overall feel of the entire movie, its dreamlike qualities, or in this case, nightmarish. Kids won’t get Nicholson’s performance, which, in later scenes especially, is very effective as the movie’s tension escalates along with Jack’s bluster (“DANNYYYYYY!”). Jack threatens to huff, puff, and blow The Overlook down (in the book, he blows it up, martyring himself to save his wife and son from the hotel’s ghostly powers), and he soon looks very much the part of the Big Bad Wolf – hairy, manic, disheveled.
But as an 8 year old, there certainly were scenes in Kubrick’s epic production that spooked me. Danny Lloyd’s ‘Tony’ routine (incidentally, during his audition, talking to his moving finger was Lloyd’s idea and helped win him the part) left its mark. The Grady girls, of course – their English accents were foreign to me at such a young age, making them even more unnerving, never mind that these young lasses were not exactly lookers, nearly as unpleasing to the eye as The Overlook’s dreadful wallpaper.
Then there is the saga of Scatman Crothers, who, in the role of Dick Hallorann, the hotel’s African-American chef, is the only character in the film to actually fall victim to Big Bad Wolf Jack. Hallorann, a kindred spirit to young Danny (anyone who offers me free ice cream should be considered a kindred spirit) has a premonition about the Torrances’ demise, flies all the way from his pimp pad in Florida (nice wall art!) to Colorado, then takes an hours-long journey up a mountain in a snowcat during a blizzard to try to save the day. He’s not at The Overlook for more than a few minutes before Jack greets him with an axe to the torso, not even offering to take his coat first. Talk about a rude host. I found this scene rather jarring, as kids don’t typically see dudes get axed in the gut on TV. As an adult, I still find it jarring simply because Scatman came all that way just to be scattered across The Overlook’s hallway. This is a tragic “Save Danny” FAIL (again, the novel differs here with Hallorann wounded by Jack but not killed).
But perhaps the creepiest scene in the entire movie, one that still baffles a lot of folks, is a seemingly throwaway scene towards the film’s conclusion in which the hotel starts ‘revealing’ itself to Shelley Duvall’s Wendy. Fleeing her insane husband after proving herself surprisingly handy with a baseball bat and a kitchen knife, Wendy starts to see the ghosts inhabiting the hotel. She climbs a staircase and stares into a room where a man in a dog costume appears about to get down (if ya know what I mean) and dirty with a man in a tuxedo.
This is no Clifford The Big Red Dog costume, either (props to the costume department for giving me nightmares). The gone-in-a-flash scene is an allusion to the King novel in which a costume party is going on at the haunted Overlook, and the hotel’s owner (tuxedo guy) is getting it on with his homosexual lover (dog suit guy). Still, it’s the scene’s complete randomness that makes it traumatizing.
There’s so much to say about the style and scope of Kubrick’s film, not to mention the contributions of Steadicam inventor Garrett Brown and score composers Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkland, that I’ll leave to the history books and the vast amount of information on The Shining’s Wikipedia page (a good read if you have a week or so to spare). The Shining is a visual and technical masterpiece and the film, once derided, is now considered a classic. It is one of my all-time favorite films, no less horror films, and the last of a dozen movies that truly scared the shit out of me.
This monthly series has been quite cathartic for me, my first real foray into essay writing. I didn’t know what to expect once I started, but I’ve learned a lot – watching movies is a gift my parents gave to me, and I’m grateful to them for it. It certainly makes me think about sharing that gift with children of my own someday (at 37, I need someone to watch cartoons with too), though I’d probably hope my offspring became famous musicians or brilliant brain surgeons rather than self-analyzing movie nerds. Maybe they’ll be all three, who knows?
Every year since I was a teen, I have dedicated this month to watching horror movies – I’ve done this with friends and family, I often make an event out of it. Three different women in my life bought into my October horror-thons, including my ex-wife, and I was lucky to have them beside me on the couch, whether covering their eyes, smoking a joint, or laughing with me over how bad the movie was. Film is a brotherhood of fanboy allegiance, incessant movie quoting, and, most especially, shared experiences. Life is hard, and the fantasy of these scary movies, whether good or bad, provides an escapism that is fairly unmatched in American culture. It was fun to recollect my own personal escapist moments while rediscovering what makes me tick and what makes me sick.
Thank you for reading.
-Art by Rick Parker
READ PART 1 (PSYCHO)
READ PART 2 (ALIEN)
READ PART 3 (JAWS)
READ PART 4 (PINOCCHIO)
READ PART 5 (CREEPSHOW)
READ PART 6 (THE EXORCIST)
READ PART 7 (TOURIST TRAP)
READ PART 8 (SLEEPING BEAUTY)
READ PART 9 (AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON)
READ PART 10 (THE EXORCIST III)
READ PART 11 (POLTERGEIST)